In my bachelor days, I had a theory about fashion, which I am sure was fatally flawed, wholly fallacious, and almost as detrimental to my dating life as my near constant state of inebriation. Wear something ugly! My most memorable find was a chartreuse, long-sleeved shirt that had been relegated to the deepest discount section of the clearance rack. The final, damning touch was that it matched the 1970s-era velour upholstered furniture in my parent’s Arizona home. By-golly, that was the shirt for me! I was in the market for something that would melt the face off a Nazi as surely as opening the Ark of the Covenant. Ugliness grows on you. You can come to love it.
I was reminded of that shirt while running a character development exercise for a writer’s group several years later. Each participant was shown an image of a person (snagged semi-randomly from the Internet) and was tasked with finding their subject’s voice. Having established their personas, the group engaged in a dialogue between these fictitious characterizations of real life people. It was a polite version of an old people watching game that I used to enjoy with a friend, sitting at the second-story window of a downtown bar — me, wearing my hideous green shirt. We supplied the passing pedestrians with invented dialogues and monologues, delivered in the shrill squawk of Terry Jones and John Cleese in drag. Good times.
Among the assorted photos of hobos, goths, ravers, and . . . more hobos was a portrait of Daniel Franzese, an actor in the film, “Missing Person,” taken during the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. None of us knew who he was at the time, but one glance at the smarmy smirk on his face and hipster outfit topped off with a hunter’s cap was enough to engender instant contempt from everyone in the room. One member of the group was particularly aggravated by the cut of Franzese’s jib, and this contempt became a roadblock for his imagination. He couldn’t find a voice. Franzese was his green shirt. I emailed him the picture. “You have to write about this man!”
My most memorable green shirt character is still Lon, the antagonist in a short story called Fast Learners, first published in issue #9 of Murky Depths. Reviewers characterized him as “a loathsome individual” and “a complete waste of flesh,” which I agree with completely. As Daniel W. Powell put it, “he takes what he wants, relegating those around him — human or not — to mere objects,” or as Lon would say, “I never slept with anyone who I thought was a person”Fast Learners was rejected by the first two publications that I submitted it to on account of its brutality. I couldn’t help but agree, and I was worried that I would never find a market for it.
From the very first paragraph, I knew that Lon would be disgusting and obnoxious. “His polo shirt doubled as a napkin, grease stains running perpendicular to the faded green stripes. His microfiber slacks were creased in all the wrong places . . . The overblown pimp ran a hand over his scalp, dislodging flakes of dandruff. Whether it was pomade or body oil alone that kept his hair in place, Enid couldn’t guess.”As the story progressed, he became something far worse. I was fascinated by his wickedness. Holding my hand, Lon guided me in a direction that I had never meant to go. He gets his comeuppance in the end, but this is merely my petty revenge on him for hijacking my story with such sinister ease. As I wrote those final paragraphs, I dreaded what he would inevitably inflict upon my protagonist. There was no happy alternative. This had to happen, and I felt sick to my stomach as I wrote, “and if you hit me again — if you move even a little, I am going to bounce your head on this floor until it splits like a melon — you hear me — and even that won’t stop me from fucking you.”